Georgia Aster: An Endangered Species?

Published May 19, 2014

Georgia Asters ~ Photo Courtesy of Michele Elmore

Georgia Aster ~ Photo Courtesy of Michele Elmore

The Georgia aster is an uncommon Southern plant that has been in decline for decades and on the verge of federal protection. Many private and public organizations are working together to conserve the plant, while simultaneously working to keep the Georgia aster off the endangered species list.

The Georgia aster was once more common across the Southeast, living in open savanna and prairie communities. Extensive wildfire control and the disappearance of large, native grazing animals left nothing to keep these areas open and grassy.

Conservation of this species today involves working to keep parts of the landscape open through the use of prescribed fire -- fire intentionally set under very specific weather conditions, often to mimic the ecological role of natural fires -- or by cutting trees and mowing.

Georgia aster (Symphyotrichum georgianum) is a purple flowering plant found in the upper Piedmont and lower mountain regions of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina -- the path of the Appalachian Trail.

In 1999, the Service made Georgia aster a candidate for inclusion on the federal endangered species list, meaning it warranted being on the list, but other species were a higher priority. The move to protect the Georgia aster comes as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with states and other federal agencies, advance a large, partnership-based effort to conserve at-risk plants and animals across the Southeast.

The proactive effort for Georgia aster is part of a large-scale, multi-partner strategy in the Southeast to boost plant and wildlife populations and habitat before they need the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Due to litigation and public requests, the Service's Southeast Region is evaluating more than 400 species for possible listing over the next decade. The partners, led by the states and the Service, are using sound science to prioritize species and coordinate their efforts to conserve as many species as possible.

"Across the South, we've really put an emphasis on bringing partners together to recover plants, fish and wildlife before they need protection under the Endangered Species Act," explained Fish and Wildlife Service Southeastern Regional Director Cindy Dohner. "It's a strategy that's making great strides, in part because conserving one at-risk plant or animal often benefits others. Conserving Georgia aster habitat conserves habitat for rapidly declining birds like the grasshopper sparrow, field sparrow, and eastern meadowlark.

"Proactive and voluntary conservation also benefits landowners, because the actions offer flexibility and help minimize their future regulatory burdens," Dohner said.

"We've brought together many of the key landowners who can collectively determine the future of this plant," explained Dr. Mara Alexander, the Service botanist coordinating this effort to conserve the rare aster. "We've outlined a land management approach that meets their needs, while supporting Georgia aster."

The agreement, called a Candidate Conservation Agreement, is designed to proactively conserve plants and animals before they need federal protection. The measures committed to in the agreement by the numerous partners, in conjunction with other conservation actions, should prevent the need to place the species on the endangered species list.

Signatories to the Georgia aster agreement include the Service, Clemson University, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Georgia Department of Transportation, Georgia Power, North Carolina's Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation, National Park Service, North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the U.S. Forest Service, with each signatory agreeing to undertake conservation actions.

Commitments include:

  • Searching for new populations;
  • Monitoring known occurrences to estimate range-wide population trends;
  • Keeping forests with Georgia aster thinned to a level that provides ample sunlight, while minimizing threats from drought and competition;
  • Avoiding mowing utility and transportation rights-of way with Georgia aster from late spring to mid-fall, when Georgia aster is at its tallest, and reproducing. If possible, mowing in mid- to late-spring to maximize impacts to invasive plants before Georgia aster is high enough to be significantly damaged;
  • When mowing rights-of-way, cutting to no less than four inches, and avoid operating machinery on wet soils to reduce soil compaction;
  • Avoiding broadcast spraying of herbicides in or near Georgia aster populations;
  • Marking populations to avoid inadvertent damage during right-of-way maintenance.

Cooperators to the agreement, who are assisting in the conservation of the Georgia aster largely though research and monitoring, are the natural heritage programs of:

For more information about the Georgia aster and this conservation agreement, visit

For more information about the Southeastern strategy to conserve at-risk plants and animals, visit

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit

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About the Author Robert Sutherland:
Robert Sutherland is a travel writer enjoying life. Robert has two adult daughters and six grandchildren.
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